Monday, December 5, 2011


I have been writing! Three new recordings are streaming here.


Chanticleer, Certain Hope

Wish that I could take your flowers in
so I could feel their bloom
In the moments when the winter wins
and all around is gloom
But buds spring forth! The promises,
so vivid midst the gray,
with whispers, "Sweet girl, hold on hope!"
While darkness turns to day.

Chanticleer, I will draw near and settle in your patches
Here I need reminding of the glory from the ashes

It started in a garden and
It ends up in the city
Where beauty will be piled high
And the streets won't glare so gritty
And everything He once deemed "Good"
Will be cultivated better
And everything once broken
Will be puzzled back together
What was will be restored as if it never had gone rotten
And what can be will be ours and what is will be forgotten

Chanticleer, I will draw near and settle in your patches
Here I need reminding of the glory from the ashes

The gardener works the afternoon
A whistle on his lips
A quiet smile beneath his beard,
Power in his fingertips
To nurture life and loveliness
In the tender toil of pruning
And secrets to young poets who
Are desperate for its meaning.

Chanticleer, I will draw near and settle in your patches
Here I need reminding of the glory from the ashes
What was will be restored as if it never had gone rotten
And what can be will be ours and what is will be forgotten

*flier design by Carter White

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Poem

On Moving Day

Our new house is sturdy

The old white molding thick lining

Each floor, window, door

The wooden boards can take a beating,

They have proven hard

These radiators heated many winters and will heat ours

The porcelain tub will hold our washing

As it has a hundred years.

And it is good this house is sturdy, for

A flimsy house could not hold

What will happen here—

What happens when we invite our friends

To let their shoulders down, truly

In a beautiful and complicated world.

This house can host what’s hard so

I will not ask for easy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Paste Magazine: Getting to Know: Dylan LeBlanc

Photo by Amanda Chapman. Read and listen here.

Hometown: Shreveport, La.
For Fans Of: Ray Lamontagne, M. Ward, Ryan Adams

Son of a country music songwriter, Dylan LeBlanc spent his childhood tagging along to a studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he played his guitar and dreamed up his own songs while his father worked. This head start to his creative development and exposure to the music industry offers some explanation for his remarkably mature debut, Paupers Field, which the 20-year old released this summer. But it can’t all be attributed to legacy—the depth of insight that marks this record is rooted in LeBlanc’s propensity for introspection, perhaps cultivated during the frequent eight-hour drives through the hills of Alabama from his hometown in Shreveport, La. when he was old enough to drive himself.

His speech as quiet and woozy as the pedal steel and subtle folk harmonies that texture his debut, LeBlanc caught up with Paste from London, where he was touring with a four-piece band of long-time friends from Muscle Shoals.

Paste: How are you liking London, Dylan?
Dylan LeBlanc: I like it. I love it. I think it’s beautiful. I love the old architecture, and I can see how a lot of creativity comes from here. I love it because the sun doesn’t really shine. I like the dark clouds. There’s something about that that makes me feel good.

Paste: I imagine it’s pretty different from your hometown.
LeBlanc: Yeah, it’s pretty different.

Paste: Tell me about Shreveport.
LeBlanc: It’s just an old run-down city. Not really—it’s not really just an old run-down city. There’s good things about it and bad things about it, like every town. We’ve got a bunch of casinos, we got a bowling alley, we got schools, and we have really good barbecue there. My family lives there. That’s good. Relatives and such.

Paste: The credits in your album insert make it seem like you have great relationships with your extended family members. There are a lot of “thank yous” to aunts and cousins.
LeBlanc: I do. I try. They practically raised me. I kind of got tossed around to each family member, so I had many people to thank. I was mostly raised by a bunch of women there. They’re insane. But I love them anyway, and they would call me crazy as well, so it’s okay.

Paste: I understand your father has been very important for you as a musical influence. Is that right?
LeBlanc: Yeah, he’s a good guy. He has been important for me musically because I got to talk to him about music and stuff like that growing up and it was really interesting.

Paste: Did you play with him a lot growing up?
LeBlanc: No, not a lot.

Paste: I understand he was a session musician in Muscle Shoals?
LeBlanc: He’s a country music songwriter. That’s what people keep getting mistaken. He did do some session work, but his job is to write songs for country music artists and get them pitched and see if they like them or not.

Paste: Did growing up around that give you an understanding of the business end of music as well as the creative end, or was his influence mostly creative?
LeBlanc: Yeah, there’s a lot of business I learned about. I definitely learned that business is business. It doesn’t matter how much you feel like family to somebody; they will take you for all you’re worth. I definitely learned that.

Paste: Did you learn that by watching your father, or have you learned that in your own experience?
LeBlanc: I definitely learned that in my own experience. You can’t tell me anything. I’m gonna do whatever I want to do most of the time. I suffer sometimes for decisions that I make, but it’s okay. I’m like any human being, I reckon.

Paste: Has the musical community that you grew up in because of your father poured into the group of people you’re working with today? Is there any cross over?
LeBlanc: It’s a new crowd. New people. I mean, I’ve known these guys that I play with now for a long time. I have pretty personal relationships with all of them, and I like to keep it that way with the people who are close to me. They’re people I can trust, and I know that I can be out on the road with for a really long time and won’t end up hating. They’re people I’ve already suffered with for a good deal of time.

Paste: Did you grow up with those guys?
LeBlanc: All of the people in the band are from Muscle Shoals.

Paste: Where is Muscle Shoals in relation to Shreveport?
LeBlanc: It’s in the Northwest corner of Alabama. Where Shreveport is in Louisiana is exactly where Muscle Shoals is in Alabama. It’s about eight and a half hours. You just drive all the way across Louisiana to Mississippi. You cut up through Tuscaloosa and straight up 43. It takes about two hours from Tuscaloosa. That’s when I know I got two hours left on the trip. That’s my favorite part of the drive, because I remember being so excited when I would finally get there. It’s a nostalgic feeling, because I used to drive back and forth a lot when I was growing up. When I finally got my car, I would leave all the time. And it was so good to get to the destination I was headed, which was mainly from Shreveport to Muscle Shoals. That last two hours, you ride through the mountains—the hills of Alabama—and it’s kinda pretty, and you get to see all the trees and stuff. I really like that.

Paste: How did you end up getting connected in Muscle Shoals from eight hours away? It’s certainly not a natural, easy transition to make, especially at such a young age.
LeBlanc: Well, like I said, my father is a country music songwriter, and they have a publishing company there called FAME, which is the Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. It’s their little publishing company and it’s an old studio where Etta James and Wilson Pickett would record. So when my father was young, he was trying to get a publishing deal because he wanted to be a songwriter. He finally got one there at FAME in Muscle Shoals, and started making a lot of money. That’s what my father did for a living, so that’s how I got connected to it. I would go up there to see him. I didn’t have anything to do all day so I would just sit there nine-to-five and watch everybody. I would sit on the couch and play my guitar and go back and into the studio and write songs.

Paste: You got an early start to songwriting—around 11 or 12 years old?
LeBlanc: Yes.

Paste: What’s the earliest song you wrote that you still play live?
LeBlanc: I don’t know. The oldest one I can remember writing is a song called “Battle,” about a family feud. Just for kicks sometimes I’ll pull that out and play it. That was one of the first songs I ever wrote.

Paste: Having written for such a long time and therefore having a lot of material to choose from, was it hard to decide what would end up on Paupers Field, or was it very clear based on what was newest? How did you make those decisions?
LeBlanc: Exactly. It was the new stuff. I felt like that was the best stuff to put on there. I mean I had songs from the catalogue that date back to when I was really young. It’s kind of funny, really. Really embarrassing. If they ever got out, I’d probably shoot myself.

Paste: What’s the most embarrassing song you’ve ever written?
LeBlanc: It was a song that I had heard in a video game. I ripped off the chorus of it. I did it on purpose. I wanted to impress my dad, so I wrote this song, and I used the same chorus of the song that was in the video game. He is a frequent video game player, so when I played it for him, he was like, “Hey man, this is the song that’s in that video game.” I was so humiliated. That was pretty embarrassing. I learned my lesson.

Paste: I read in your interview with Details magazine that one of the things that you love most is just to hear peoples’ stories—”to listen to people and hear them talk.” Does a lot of the material for your songs flow out of others’ real life stories?
LeBlanc: I think I just take a little bit of everything with me. Every songwriter is like a sponge. He is constantly observing everything that’s going on around him, trying to be aware of little things. I could make up someone’s life in my own head—like a woman that walks out of the grocery store with her child in her hand, I could map her life out in five minutes to what I think it would be. I’ve done that a lot before, and then written a song based on my idea of what somebody is. I guess that’s wrong. I guess that’s a bad thing to do, in a way.

Paste: Well, that’s like fiction writing, isn’t it?
LeBlanc: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s like fiction. And then I put a little bit of my own experience into it, to try to keep it true to myself.

Paste: As you’re taking in peoples’ stories, do you do that as a quiet observer, sitting in a room and listening to someone talk and just taking it in, or are you somebody who is proactively drawing that out of people by asking questions and being attentive to their answers?
LeBlanc: It depends on who the person is. I’m really not into people that I don’t know. It’s really hard for me to talk to people. But the people that I do know, I do have proactive conversations. I like to try to drag certain feelings out of my drummer, or drag certain feelings out of my friend, like Jesse, my bass player. I want to know if people feel like I do. I know that they do, but I always want to know to what degree. I want to know how deep a person thinks. Because I can get so deep into my own thoughts that I feel like I am going insane. It’s really kind of scary in there. It’s frightening, and I try to stay out of it as long as I can. But when I do go into that spot, I need somebody to pull me back out. So I do dig with the people that know. But not with people I don’t know. People that I’m not comfortable with, I just sit back and observe them. I’m trying to see the beauty in everybody, to see the most wonderful things that I could possibly see in anybody.

Paste: Does that come naturally to you? Are you someone for whom it’s easy to see the better in people rather than the worse, or is that something that at this point in your life you’re trying to be intentional about?
LeBlanc: I’m definitely, um…

Paste: Maybe that comes down to optimism and pessimism.
LeBlanc: Yeah. I’m a very optimistic kind of person, but in a really offshoot kind of way. I don’t know how to explain it.

Paste: It’s more complicated than, “Just an optimist”?
LeBlanc: Yeah. I do intentionally try to see the best in people.

Paste: You mentioned earlier that sometimes you’ll make up someone’s story—that there’s a lot of fiction in your writing. Can you talk about a specific song on Paupers Field, and point to some of those elements of fact and fiction?
LeBlanc: I’m not going to get completely deep into it, no, but I will tell you a bit about it. Take “Emma Hartley,” for example. It’s a fictional take on a man that I knew who was struggling with addiction. He happened to also love a woman, but he couldn’t pull away from the addiction long enough for her to stay. That song is about his love affair between the two. That’s kind of a fictional thing but also very true to life and the things that I’m familiar with.

Paste: Given what you mentioned about how it’s not super easy for you to talk to people that you don’t know very well, has traveling been exhausting or energizing to you?
LeBlanc: Just trying to be really kind and polite, and not seem fake about it, that’s been kind of hard. When people come out to my show and support me live, no matter what kind of mood I’m in, I always try to be professional and thank them and make them feel like they were wanted there and that I really appreciate them, because I do. But yes, that gets exhausting every now and then. But it’s real important, I think, so I try to do that when I can.

Paste: One of the most common things that critics are saying about Paupers Field, and that I hear in your music too, is that your artistic voice sounds “weathered” and “wise beyond its years.”
LeBlanc: I just wish people could step into my life, and could’ve seen my life growing up. That’s the only way they could ever understand. It’s so hard and it’s so ugly. It’s so nice when people say good things, but then again it’s so ugly for people to say things that they don’t know about first-hand because they were not there to witness it. You have to take into consideration all of somebody.

Paste: Do you feel wise beyond your years, or when you hear that comment, do you think, “Hey, whoa, I’m only 20.”
LeBlanc: I mean, I definitely think that I’m smarter than everybody on this planet—No I’m just teasing. But I do get surprised often when I meet older people and I realize how unintelligent they are. I do feel old. But you could call that teenage angst, as well. I could get stuck with all of those stereotypes. But, when you spend a lot of time alone digging deep into your thoughts and experimenting just how far you can push yourself and push your mind, I think that makes anybody intelligent. Self-education is something that I’ve become really, really good at. That’s the best education you could ever get.

Paste: Does that all come from within, or do you read a lot and take in a lot from external sources as well?
LeBlanc: It’s 50-50. If there is something that I absolutely need to know about that I do not know anything about, I’ll pick up a book and read about it. Emotions are like potential energy. Say you have a necklace that you wear around your neck, and you take that necklace and you hold it at a 90-degree angle. It doesn’t matter how long you hold it there, it’s going to have potential energy. When you finally let it go, it’s going to swing at exactly the same height as you let it go at. Your emotions are the same way. That was a kind of interesting thing I learned. It’s just basic psychology. You can figure it all out on your own if you think hard enough.

Paste: But that’s something that you’ve been learning about through reading?
LeBlanc: No, I mean, I already had a pretty good grasp on it. What I’m saying is that if you think about things long enough or hard enough, you’ll eventually figure it out, and you’ll eventually find out that it’s true. You can do it by yourself. Everything I read in books it’s like, “well, I already know that.” That’s why sometimes I feel like I can’t get help from people, because they just keep tellin’ me things that I already know or that I already cleared up in my head ten years ago. I don’t know. That sounds really self-centered. I’m not a self-centered person, I don’t think. Maybe I think too hard sometimes.

Paste: Are you writing anything now, or just focusing on promoting and playing?
LeBlanc: We started doing some new songs in our set on this tour. We’ve been working up new material, and yeah, I’ve been writing a lot lately. I took a break for a six-month period, knock on wood, where I couldn’t really write anything and it was scaring me a bit. I think that was time for me to gather my thoughts and try to write something new.

Paste: It’s great that during a season of intense touring and promoting, you are also able to write.
LeBlanc: It’s not constant or anything—I’m not going to sit here and lie and tell you I’m completely prolific or anything, but I definitely have been getting two or three out every couple of weeks or so.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Paste Magazine: Best of What's Next: Mountain Man

To listen while you read, click here.

Contrary to its name, the delicate, airy vocals of Mountain Man are more evocative of open plains and prairie skirts than shady peaks and bushy beards. Molly Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Meath comprise the acoustic folk trio, whose sparse lyrics are grounded in nature and femininity; nurtured by a culture of impromptu house shows at Vermont’s Bennington College, the band will release its debut LP, Made The Harbor, on July 20, just a few weeks after Meath’s college graduation. Between moving out of the house where Mountain Man began and kicking off the band's first large-scale tour through Europe and North America, the new Bennington alum took some time to catch up with Paste about Cyndi Lauper, weird nooks and songs that make her weep.

Paste: Can you tell me the story of how the three of you came together?
Ameila Meath: We figured out that we needed to sing together. It was basically a serendipitous event where I heard Molly singing “Dog Song” and I made her teach it to me and then I taught it to Alex, and then all three of us decided that we needed to be a band, particularly after we sang for our friends and there was such excitement. We were really excited but then when other people started expressing excitement about what we were doing it was like, “Oh, of course, we want to keep on sharing this and keep on doing this.”

Paste: Did that happen at Bennington College, in someone’s living room or something?
Meath: Oh yeah, it was my living room, in the house that Molly and I are in the process of moving out of right now. I moved in there like a year ago and our first show was the inaugural house show of that house.

Paste: Did it end up being one of many house shows?
Meath: Yeah, it was. In fact, we set up a tour last summer that was mostly house shows and small venues.

Paste: So this all came together your junior year?
Meath: It really came together the end of my junior year—that was when Mountain Man started. It really started coming together as a band, we practiced the most and spent the most time together at the end of my junior year.

Paste: Are house shows a big part of the culture of Bennington College? Did they happen pretty frequently?
Meath: Yeah, I mean, they’re the most important thing. House shows are a religious experience.

Paste: What’s Bennington like? Is it a pretty small school?
Meath: It is a pretty small school. It’s like a school of, oh damn, I don’t know. The sexual ratio is 70% women and 30% men. You design your own major there. A lot of fun people went there, like Bleeker—Alex Bleeker. He’s the bassist for Real Estate. He lived in my house.

Paste: So you were in a pretty musical environment for much of your time at Bennington?
Meath: Oh yeah, totally. We lived in Colonial houses, 30 people to a house, so there was this family vibe, and you have a big living room, and you can have your friends come who are on tour and play in your living room. So there are lots of little impromptu good shows popping up. Oh my gosh, it’s awesome.

Paste: Before Mountain Man, were you participating in that at all, or was the formation of the band really the first time that you were able to participate?
Meath: No, I have always sung with some of my friends. Alex and our friend Maya Friedman and I played a couple of times. Alex and I became musical partners when we realized that we both wanted to cover the entirety of She’s So Unusual, the Cyndi Lauper album. You know, it has “Witness” on it, it has, oh, “When You Were Mine,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” You know, that song was written by a man. How hilarious is that?

Paste: Did you ever make progress on that project?
Meath: No, no we didn’t. Summer started and we just got really into hanging out on the front porch and shooting PBR cans with BB guns and got distracted.

Paste: Priorities, Amelia. Priorities.
Meath: I know, I know, I know—but then Molly came along and we all snapped to attention, as it were.

Paste: So when Alex graduated, how were you able to move forward with music after she had left school?
Meath: Alex moved to Virginia, and really everyone kind of relaxed. We took a Mountain Man hiatus. But people started getting into the tour album, recorded in part by us the night before we went on tour by singing into Molly’s computer, and in part by my friend Trevor. And then our friends started getting it out to their friends and it started going on the Internet, and then we were swooped up like a barn swallow.

Paste: Who did the majority of the writing for this record? It it shared?
Meath: We all do the writing. I mean, we all write some. No one person did the majority of the writing. I think Molly has more songs on this album, by nature of the fact that she writes a lot of music.

Paste: Are there defining characteristics to each of your voices, lyrically?
Meath: Oh yeah, totally.

Paste: Some songs are more sparse than others, some have more nature imagery and some have more human, more sexual imagery. Can you point to who is who?
Meath: Well, let’s see. Molly’s music usually is more explicitly about sex. Alex’s music is more nostalgic. Since I don’t play an instrument—I just write a cappella songs—they’re kind of just weirder, and usually have to do with, like, motherhood.

Paste: Did you study Women’s Studies or Gender Studies in school?
Meath: I did not but it’s always been something that’s very important to me. Feminism is incredibly important to me. It always has been.

Paste: Is there a real place for that at Bennington College? Does a culture that’s really interested in feminism exist there?
Meath: I think that I was lucky enough to fall into a really beautiful group of women who supported me and who became my family once I got to college. I had always been a feminist, but the group of women that I fell into taught me so much about how to think of being a feminist objectively as opposed to just getting really fucking mad, which is usually what I do, and how to start talking about it, to go and learn and try to change people’s mindsets.

Paste: So it sounds like there was a lot of opportunity at school for good dialogue in the community you were in.
Meath: Yeah.

Paste: How are you feeling about leaving all of that as you graduate?
Meath: I’m pretty ready. I’ve been given such an exciting opportunity to get paid to gig every night and sing incredibly intimate songs about being a woman to new people—what a dream! What a dream. I mean, I would quit school for this, for a while anyway.

Paste: And that’s what Molly’s doing? For a little while, anyway?
Meath: Yes, for a little while. I have been told by numerous professors that we need to make sure that she finishes her degree.

Paste: Tell me a little about your musical background. You said that you have been singing for a long time, and I’m interested both in your singing and performing background, but also in your history as a listener of music.
Meath: I grew up in a singing family, which means that usually after dinner, we would sing. We lived in this big house in New Hampshire every July and all of our friends would come and live there too, and we would have dinners and my mom would say, “All right, I think it’s time for everyone to sing a song.” So I grew up doing that, and singing with my dad. In Cambridge, Mass., there is a community of people that puts on something called The Revels every winter solstice, and it’s a celebration that’s mostly just a bunch of people in really hilarious costumes singing traditional music—different kinds of traditional music depending on the year. My dad was in the Italian-themed Revels, I was in the Gypsy-themed Revels, I was in an English-themed Revels. There are standards that everyone keeps in their repertoire. After the show we would all go out as a cast. I was lucky enough to go out because my dad was in the adult cast. We would go into Harvard Square and take over the bottom floor of a restaurant, and people would bring their fiddles and sing like crazy. So I grew up doing that—a lot of that.

Paste: As a kid and also lately, what has been very important to you as a listener of music?
Meath: Oh gosh, all sorts of things. It’s always so funny because people expect us to be incredible folkies, and that’s really not the case with me. I grew up listening to so many different kinds of music. Mostly a band called NRBQ, and Willis Alan Ramsey, and then when I discovered indie music, it was Animal Collective, Final Fantasy and Of Montreal. ... Now I listen to mostly Michael Hurley—a lot. Molly and Alex and I all love Michael Hurley. What else? Harry Potter on tape. A lot of my friends’ bands—Real Estate, Family Portrait, Twigz. I’m having an Animal Collective resurgence in my life, which is really nice. Oh, God, the first time I heard Sung Tongs, I wept. Granted, I was applying to colleges at the time, so the song “College” came on and I almost died.

Paste: Has any song done that to you lately, in this season of graduating?
Meath: Yeah, but you know, I don’t know the name of it. There’s a song that one of Molly’s friends made her called, “Playing Baseball With Your Hands Tied Behind Your Back and No Clothes On.” And there’s an incredibly beautiful song that if Molly was here we’d sing it for you. I’ll try to get the title to you. Other than that, nothing in particular has made me feel like everything is going to be all right forever, you know, the way some really amazing songs do. Oh, you know, that’s a total lie! It’s a Paleo song! Sorry, I got really excited that I just remembered. It’s a Paleo song and it’s called “Everything Must Go.” It’s from his latest record, which I don’t think is out yet. The whole album is really healing me right now. It’s really good.

Paste: I read that Made The Harbor was recorded in an old ice cream parlor. Why did you choose to record in that space?
Meath: Oh, it wasn’t really an ice cream parlor. It was in my friend Justin Wolf’s house, and his house used to be an ice cream parlor, but it’s not anymore. Now it’s just a house. We were in his little beautiful attic space. It was really nice because there was pink tile on some of the walls, so it lent to some really nice noise-making.

Paste: What are some of your favorite spaces to perform in—either venues or weird nooks?
Meath: Usually weird nooks. Pink tile. Alleyways. Sometimes churches. I really want to go sing in Grand Central Station next to that oyster bar. I want to do that. I really like being able to sing for like 10 to 20 people. That’s really exciting for me. Not that it’s not nice to play shows, but it’s so nice when you can really be with the people that you’re singing for.

Paste: Will you have the opportunity for any of that on either the U.S. or U.K. tour, or are you playing all medium-sized venues?
Meath: On the UK tour there’s one show that I’m really excited about, where we’re playing in a tower called Saint Augustine. There are only like 35 tickets, so it’ll be really small and good. Other than that, this tour I am personally going to get used to playing for larger groups of people. I don’t not like it—I would just like to be able to maintain the same kind of intimacy that I can with 35 people with 200. I am trying to figure out how to do that.

Paste: Is this the first time that you’ll have to do a long string of large shows?
Meath: I think our longest tour so far was a week and a half or two weeks, so yes, this will be our first long string.

Paste: The sense that I get from the record is that there isn’t one dominant voice, and that you three share vocal prominence and responsibility. Am I hearing that right? There’s not a lead singer?
Meath: No, there isn’t.

Paste: That’s a neat thing.
Meath: We think so!

Paste: Well, enjoy these last few days of rest before the craziness of your summer starts. And enjoy the craziness of your summer!
Meath: Thanks! Yeah, I hope to. It’s going to be a very loud adventure. So far, our theme for the tour will be Triumph. I’m really excited about it.

Paste: Can’t go wrong with that.
Meath: We also named the tour the Hey, Mom, Look At Me tour.

Paste: What will you do for the US release date of Made The Harbor in July? Is there a celebration in the works?
Meath: I’m sure. I don’t know if there’s going to be a large-scale party, but there might be. Hopefully there will be. Or we’ll just be in some tiny apartment in Brooklyn yelling. That’s what I always prefer.

Mountain Man on MySpace

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Paste Magazine: Best of What's Next: Nathaniel Rateliff

Nathaniel Rateliff’s newest LP In Memory of Loss (out now) rings with the ease, tenderness and lightness of heart that often mark a new romance. And rightly so: Much of the album was written to woo a woman. Ambling guitar riffs and light touches of piano sound like aimless strolls through town; Rateliff’s rich voice and his bandmates’ textured harmonies sound like long and comfortable conversations, and the songwriter’s occasional raw vocal rattle sounds like those sweet moments of when new lovers are bold to share hard truths—family secrets, old friends, regrets—and ask big questions. Paste recently talked with Rateliff, the door-collector and sometime-gardener, while he was at home in Denver, Colo., just before he set out on romp around the rural Midwest with Daytrotter’s third Barnstormer tour.

Paste: Are you on a little break right now from touring, Nathaniel?
Nathaniel Rateliff: I am. I think I leave again Monday. Not too much of a break—just long enough to work for a week doing irrigation.

Paste: Is that your other work?
Rateliff: Yeah, I’m a gardener—I don’t normally do irrigation. I don’t really know much about irrigation, but basically all I did was dig holes for four days.

Paste: Have you been gardening for a long time?
Rateliff: I started the gardening two years ago through some friends. I’ll probably work with them when I’m not on tour for the most part. It pays well and I get to learn about plants and I make a little extra money, because I really don’t like to have to worry about money. And being a musician, it’s one of the things that you worry about.

Paste: Are you living in urban, metropolitan Denver, or are you a little ways out?
Rateliff: I am in the heart of Denver. You’ve probably never been here before, but I live in one of the historical neighborhoods, just down from downtown proper where all of the big buildings are, which is nice because you don’t really want to live down there anyways. But, you know, I live by one of my favorite clubs—it’s a nice little neighborhood. Most of my friends and most of the band live really close.

Paste: I read that you spent some time in your childhood in a town with a population of 60.
Rateliff: I did. We ended up living there twice, actually. Once, my family were caretakers for some wealthy people, and another time we rented this five bedroom farmhouse for 175 bucks a month. So you went into the town of 60 or something, and made a right turn, and drove down the road ‘til the pavement ended and it turned gravel, and there was like seven miles of gravel road, and our house was really way the heck out there.

Paste: Having come from a background like that, how do you find living in the city?
Rateliff: I like living in the country and I miss it a lot, actually. Hopefully, we’ll be able to buy property someday. Otherwise, saving all of these wine bottles and doors I keep collecting is going to be hard.

Paste: Do you have a purpose for all of those wine bottles and doors?
Rateliff: I think I was just trying to find a door that would fit my back door so I could put a dog door in it, but now it seems like I have a bunch of these doors laying around still. I could do anything with them, I guess. I could build a greenhouse.

Paste: You could make a table.
Rateliff: I could make a table—I’ve seen someone do that and it was actually pretty cool. I don’t really have any room to put another table in my house.

Paste: You could make some outdoor tables for your yard.
Rateliff: I could. I could make a door-picnic table. So yeah, I lived in that town called Bay, and then I also lived in another town, Hermann, with 2,500 people.

Paste: Do you have family there still? Do you go there often?
Rateliff: Joseph Pope, who plays in the band with me—he plays guitar and harmonica and sings—we grew up there together and his mom still lives in Hermann, so we go back there when we can. And my mom still lives not too far from there, and my younger sister and my older sister as well.

Paste: Did you and Joseph move to Denver together?
Rateliff: We did. We actually were in a band together in Hermann. You know, we played at some outdoor stage and got shut down by the cops and tried to play shows. Then we moved out here and that band fizzled out and we started another band called Born In The Flood, and that actually did really well. I made the decision to go for a solo act as we were being looked at by different labels.

Paste: Is your old band The Wheel now under the moniker "Nathaniel Rateliff”?
Rateliff: Yup.

Paste: So it’s pretty much the same group of people?
Rateliff: It is the same group of people. I really wanted to be able to use The Wheel, but I guess there was some copyright infringement thing with Willie Nelson and some metal band, so that was out, and the label really wanted me to use my name. It’s not really what I ever wanted to do. It was going to be “Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel,” but, you know, I never really liked band names with…

Paste: …with the “and the’s”?
Rateliff: The “and the’s.” Yeah.

Paste: What did you love about the name The Wheel?
Rateliff: I just felt like it was anonymous, you know? Even though I had written all of the songs, I felt like I was still retaining a little bit of privacy. Now anybody can find out where I live. Not that anybody cares.

Paste: When did you move to Denver?
Rateliff: Twelve years ago, so 1998 or ’99? When I was 19.

Paste: And why Denver?
Rateliff: One of my best friends had moved out here and I just kind of followed. We were going to try to move to San Diego, which we never did. We both got jobs at a trucking company, and we kind of got stuck. I was at that trucking company for nine years. Yeah, it was a real career job.

Paste: I read that when you were 13 years old your father died, and that same year you started playing the guitar. Was that also the year that you stopped going to school?
Rateliff: It was. It was my 7th grade year. I almost finished out the year. My father was on his way to church. I kind of grew up with this religious background but it’s not necessarily anything that sustains me now, I guess. I try to say that without being offensive to anybody. But he was on his way to church and was taking a shortcut on a gravel road and got hit broadside and passed away. The funny thing is that normally I would have taken the bus home from school and gone with him. But that day I stayed in town and was going to skate with my buddy after school and meet at church on a Tuesday night or something. I don’t know if you had to go to church when you were a kid but we were there two or three times a week.

Paste: What kind of church was it?
Rateliff: It was non-denominational Christian.

Paste: Did you start playing music right after that?
Rateliff: No, I had started playing drums when I was 7. Both my mom and my dad both played, so music was a pretty big part of my family. My sister played piano and sang.

Paste: Did you play together as kids?
Rateliff: We did. We would play church shows and stuff. My mom was the worship leader at the church, and my dad sang and played multiple wind instruments, and my sister would sing and play piano. I bought a guitar for me and my childhood best friend—I bought him a guitar with some money I had made from cutting grass. I had to be probably 11. I saved my money and bought him a guitar because he wanted one but he was a poor kid, too. It was like fifty bucks or something, and I thought we were gonna start a rock band and wind up being real cool. I was never real cool. And the guitar I bought then, I never really played because my mom set me up with lessons and I didn’t really want to learn how to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the guitar. So I kept playing the drums, playing along to Led Zeppelin and Nevermind and played to the radio. When my dad passed away I had a little more interest in guitar. My mom had a Martin 12-string that was just layin’ around, and I asked her to teach me a couple chords and she taught me three, and my best friend taught me a few more, and I just started writing.

Paste: So did you start on a 12-string?
Rateliff: It was just what was lying around. My mom ended up buying me another guitar because she didn’t want me to use hers. But yeah, I fooled around with that until she bought me my own six-string, and then we just kept acquiring gear. I learned how to play the piano years later.

Paste: So you’ve been writing for a very long time.
Rateliff: I wouldn’t say I was necessarily good back then.

Paste: That’s allowed. You don’t have to be good at 13. So we now have In Memory of Loss just shy of a decade later. I’m curious to know from your perspective if there is a particular season of your life that this record documents. Are there particular things that you were learning or mourning or celebrating or obsessing over during the time that you were writing these songs?
Rateliff: Yeah, actually. I wrote them right around the time I had written the first record that I self-released, Desire and Dissolving Men, which I put out under The Wheel and also under Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel. I guess at that time in my life, I’m still living in the same house I was then, and I was getting along for the most part. I was single for the first time in a long time and kind of lonely but kind of excited about it. I was still working for the trucking company and I had met somebody, so some of the songs are intended to woo this person. And I wrote one of the songs for one of my best friends. Sometimes when you grow up, it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. I’m not saying that happened to me at all, I mean, I am very fortunate that everything’s turning out really well. But I think for other people that I grew up with, I think maybe they had expectations about life and it just doesn’t turn out so great all the time, you know? Sometimes you end up being a construction worker and having kids and a wife and working hard and trying to get along with your family, and you’re struggling and trying to love them, and you don’t end up being a great poet or a rock star or whatever. And that’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with that. But I kind of wrote “When We Could” about my friend, thinking back on being younger. And then “You Should’ve Seen The Other Guy” I kind of wrote about a fight. It’s a sort of metaphorical fight about a real one that was actually happening in my life. And the other part of it is about my great-grandfather who was a bootlegger. He made moonshine during Prohibition and was living on making his own whiskey and selling it out of the jar. He was walking home and was tired so he thought he’d sit down by a tree, and froze to death because he didn’t know how cold he was. But yeah, I never knew the guy or anything.

Paste: Did that story haunt your family’s legacy in any way?
Rateliff: No, because everybody—it was my dad’s side of the family that that happened to, and so you know my dad had never met him either, but that side of the family has always struggled with excess, I guess, and I do too. But I’m getting better with it in my thirties. I was never much for drugs. Always liked liquor better, but it can definitely be the devil’s sauce. Not that I necessarily believe in the devil.

Paste: Metaphorically speaking. So you mentioned that you wrote a few songs to woo a woman. How did that go?
Rateliff: Well, I married her.

Paste: Oh, good work buddy!
Rateliff: I still try to woo her. I think that’s your job as a lover and a partner is to continue in that same sort of feeling that you had when you first met. Not that that’s always possible because it’s a little too dreamy for it to stay exactly the way it is when you first meet somebody.

Paste: Do you still write for her?
Rateliff: Yeah, I do. She always makes me play for her.

Paste: When did y’all get married?
Rateliff: September 20, the year before last. Last September was our first anniversary, and I was on the road. But she knew that’s what to expect, so he wasn’t upset about it. We celebrated when I was home.

Paste: Is she able to come on the road with you sometimes?
Rateliff: Yeah, I try to get her to come out to New York when I’m out there. And I think she and her daughter are going to come out to Barnstormers with me.

Paste: Oh, that’ll be so fun! Tell me a bit about that tour.
Rateliff: It’s gonna be fun, I know that! Delta Spirit will be there, and I’m really good friends with Matt [Vasquez] and the rest of the guys. I really like their stuff, so it’s fun when you have friends and you also really enjoy their music. And there’s Ra Ra Riot, and I can’t remember the other two bands that are touring with us, but they’re all really good. Sean Moeller from Daytrotter has set up this thing to play all of these shows in barns throughout the Midwest, and I guess as far as the driving distance, it’s pretty close, so we might see a lot of the same people at the different shows. They’ll kind of come on the tour with us.

Paste: It sounds like such a fun community thing. Especially if people are traveling with you guys, it’ll be really relational. You’ll actually get to know some people. That’ll be good.
Rateliff: It’s always nice, if you’re on tour with a band and you really like them and you connect on more than just a musical level.

Paste: How’s it going with The Low Anthem? Are you in the middle of touring with them or have you finished that?
Rateliff: We finished that. That went really well. We’ve only had really good experiences with bands we’ve gone out with. Their audience is really rad—it’s a really good listening audience. I think that’s probably what everybody wants, right? But it’s really nice when you actually get it.

Paste: How long were you on the road with them?
Rateliff: We only did six dates with them, so not very long. But we’re doing almost a month with The Tallest Man on Earth, and then I guess in July we’re doing our first headlining tour. So that’s exciting and scary. It’s just a matter of whether people will come out. I have pretty modest expectations. I’m not necessarily expecting to be a rich man by the next year. Those aren’t really my goals either. My goals are to play music for people that like what I do and be remotely successful, and maybe buy property.

Paste: Where did you say that you would like to buy if you could?
Rateliff: You know, I don’t know yet. I’ve looked at Colorado, I’ve looked at New Mexico, but I don’t really have any plans of moving right now because I don’t have any money. I wouldn’t move until my daughter’s out of high school. She goes right down the street, so it’s pretty convenient.

Paste: How old is she?
Rateliff: She’s 14. I mean, she is my step-daughter. I didn’t have a kid at 16.

Paste: That’s great. Is she on the record in any way?
Rateliff: No, she’s not. I haven’t written any songs for her yet. I think she’s more of a BeyoncĂ© fan anyway.

Paste: I bet you could tap into the Beyoncé sound.
Rateliff: You know, we’re talking about doing an R&B record. When we were in the middle of recording with Brian Deck and I was like, “You know, I always wanted to do a soul/R&B thing.” And he was like, “You mean like, older stuff, right?” I was like, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, I’m in.”

Paste: That’s awesome. You could do it! You’ve got the voice for it, I think.
Rateliff: Yeah, it’s just a matter of writing the material for it.

Paste: Are you writing right now? Are you able to write during these seasons of touring and promoting?
Rateliff: I am, but the way I write is usually that I don’t write for a while and then all of the sudden I write a bunch of songs, and then I don’t write for a while again. I never force it. I never worry that I won’t end up writing because it all comes back.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Austin here we come!

My sweet friend Carter White, my former fellow Paste intern and an incredibly gifted designer, made a poster for my show at SXSW this Friday that is way cool. Check it out here, and if you're in Austin, check out my set with Sarah and Zach--details below. We take off for Texas early tomorrow morning and are so excited!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Paste Magazine: Best of What's Next: Ben + Vesper (Listen to LuvInIdleness here)

School was closed for a snow storm and all four members of the Stamper family were home the February afternoon Paste sat down for lunch with the husband-wife duo that comprises Ben + Vesper. Tea steeped and homemade soup simmered on the stove; there were kids on laps and timers beeping and over-leavened loaves of bread spilling out of pans in the oven. Somehow, amid days just like this—and all while working other jobs—Ben and Vesper Stamper have had an exceptionally productive year. Last summer, they recorded their second full-length album with Daniel Smith of Sounds Familyre Records; just weeks later, a few days in the studio with longtime friend Sufjan Stevens yielded the EP LuvInIdleness (out now). As they await this month’s tour with label-mates Danielson and Ortolan, the Stampers discuss their young daughter’s psychedelic songwriting, their excitement to don the signature Danielson footwear and the centrality of relationships to their artistry—the joyful union of their music and friendship, music and children, music and marriage.

Paste: This year has been so productive for you guys creatively, with the EP and then a full-length coming out later this year. How does that kind of productivity happen in the midst of raising a family? In the midst of your work as an illustrator, Vesper, and your job with the church, Ben? Is it disciplined? Is it spontaneous?
Vesper: It’s not disciplined! There’s not enough structure, that’s for sure.
Ben: It really helps to have the support of the label as a catalyst, or a way to organize your creativity. If you have connections that are already established, you can work towards something. You can work towards a certain audience that you know is there and know that your work will eventually reach an audience, no matter how small it is or what the demographic is. That really helps because in the midst of all of the craziness of life and responsibilities, you have a channel that everything leaks down into, and if there’s enough fed into that, there can be a flow of output. For us it’s crucial. Both projects this year came about through relationships that we have, and it’s more organic, especially the EP. The way that LuvInIdleness came about was we were playing a show in [New York] after we had finished all of the sessions for the full-length. So we were playing a show and Sufjan was there, and we were talking after the show. He had asked Vesper to sing on something.
Vesper: Oh yeah, do you know that film that he just did? It was a documentary [Crooked River] with a friend of his [director Kaleo LaBelle], and he did the score for it and so he needed backup vocals. After our show—it was like 11 o’clock at night or something—we took a cab over to his studio and recorded background vocals. So we were talking at the studio that night and said, “Oh, we should do some more collaboration. I’m singing on your stuff; come sing on some of ours,” or whatever. So when we got back to the venue, we were just talking and were like, “Let’s just get together and play some stuff and record it and see what happens, just for our own enjoyment,” you know, expecting nothing out of it. He had been so busy with his music and we were doing our stuff too, and so it was nice to think of doing something with no consequences, just for pure creative enjoyment.

Paste: When was this?
Vesper: August.
Ben: Or like July or something. He had just been down with us recording on the full-length because he was a part of that as well, but it was for a very specific project. We knew exactly what we wanted to do with it. It wasn’t as collaborative. So we thought it would be fun to just do music. All of us were really craving that—something that wasn’t so connected to a project or product. So yeah, he invited us to do it in August. I wrote the songs—
Vesper: —in a week! He wrote five songs in a week.
Ben: And then we sent it to him and we worked out a date and then he just invited us over, and the first day we all tracked together, whatever we could live, all of us in a circle, press go and play. Then the proceeding days we took turns. Vesper would go and I’d watch the kids, or I’d go and Vesper would watch the kids, and then we started building the recording. I think it took a week.
Vesper: [Ben’s brother] Josh came up for a day and did some bass. He was the only other person on it.
Ben: It was so much fun to work this way because we would go home and Sufjan would stay and work on it and send us MP3s of the mixes, so we would get them in the morning—
Vesper: —and he would have done like 25 other things on it.
Ben: It was such a treat, such a treat, just to hear his ideas, and so it really became a collaboration, and that’s what was so enjoyable about it. Then we would respond to the things he did with other things. We were interested in his ear, and he did it in such a way that he was really trying to get at our aesthetic as well and not just paste his own on top. You can tell that it’s a collaboration with Sufjan Stevens, but he was really good about drawing things out of us that we didn’t know were there. In his role as a producer, he did an excellent job because he was always encouraging us to do things differently from the habits we fall into in singing and playing.
Vesper: He had me sing opera, for instance. I was like, “I’m a tenor!”
Ben: But he really got it out of you. And he really challenged me to sing with different approaches. And with my guitar playing, he really pushed that—like changing the sound of the guitar by shoving toilet paper in the strings and doing all these weird things to break me out of my habits and my lowest common denominator mode. He’d just throw things into the mix and say, “Work with this,” and it was really fun and stretching. So yeah, he worked on it another week after we tracked our stuff, and then it was done. The initial idea was just to make homemade copies—
Vesper: —we had this five-week residency at the Sycamore in the city—
Ben: —and after we were playing the shows, I sent a copy to Daniel [Smith, of Sounds Familyre Records] and he was interested, and he said, “Let’s put it out.” So it was great, because at the point where we decided to have Sounds Familyre release it, we had already realized the spirit of the project, and now it’s just like, “Hey, let’s pass it around so other people can get exposed to it.”
Vesper: Because it was so fun! I’m not supposed to say this, but I love listening to it. It’s just so fun. It makes me happy to listen to it because it’s so light-hearted.
Ben: And I think Sufjan really helped with that aspect of it. He helped us to sort of refocus where we wanted to go musically. The last full length, All This Could Kill You, it was sort of like, “I want to put into this the scope of my interests, musically and sonically,” and it was just sort of buckshot. Working with Sufjan helped us to focus in a bit on what Ben + Vesper is.
Vesper: We had a lot of that shaping, too, when we did the full-length.
Ben: Yeah, you’re right.
Vesper: We now have a regular band that we play with, so we’ve been able to hone it. But when we did the full length, Brian McTear was amazing as a producer. He could hear things and realize them in this really precise way. He really understood the spirit of the music. He understood things about our music that we didn’t, that we couldn’t articulate, so he could really draw it out and make it happen right there.
Ben: And then there were these bunny trails we were going down where he would say, “That’s kind of besides the point,” but we didn’t have the discernment to catch it ourselves. That’s what a producer’s for. They see what you’re trying to get at and they help you get there. So yeah, we were coming off of that experience, and then Sufjan just continued that. We understand ourselves better musically now.
Vesper: And now we’ve got a body of four records to be able to listen to and say, “Oh, these are the common threads that weave throughout, and this is where we gravitate in our sound.”
Ben: And what might just have been an infatuation for a moment but isn’t really going to stick.

Paste: Given your longstanding friendship with Sufjan and fact that he has contributed instrumentally to both of your full-length records, was your time in his studio very easy and comfortable? Did you all have your guard down from the beginning, or did it take some time to settle into your roles together?
Ben: I think that initially going into it, I was nervous, because all of the sudden we were on his turf. We had always invited him into what we were doing, but here he was inviting us into his creative mind. So right beforehand, I became really nervous and self-conscious. All of my weaknesses came to the surface. I realized, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t…” But upon getting there, once we started, it was fine. I was worried that he was going to start demanding skill out of me that I didn’t have, because he’s—
Vesper: He’s, like, a real musician.
Ben: Yeah, so I just had all these imaginations where he would be like, “Well, why don’t you try this one instead?” and I’d say, “OK, I’ll be back in five hours.” Being nervous was actually helpful because it just made me realize that I’m not a player; I’m a writer, and I play my guitar as a way to communicate the songs. It helped me come to terms with that.
Vesper: Yeah, and I was very quickly removed from playing the piano.
Ben: Although, he was perfectly cool with the parts that you played. I think you gave up.
Vesper: I was just kind of like, “You should play this.” I’m not an instrumentalist, either. I’m a singer—that’s what I do.
Ben: Any piano, really at all, is Sufjan.

Paste: How about the accordion? Is that you, Vesper?
Vesper: No, that’s Sufjan. I didn’t even think to put the accordion on there.
Ben: That was one of those things that he did and then sent us the mix. I play guitar, and you play electric guitar, and Sufjan does absolutely everything else except for Josh’s upright bass. So yeah, in the end, it was so enjoyable because it did just feel like friends making music together. There wasn’t that awkwardness or weirdness once we started recording. It was just enjoyable.

Paste: So LuvInIdleness happened outside of this home, in Sufjan’s studio. When you are working from home, though, what role do your kids play in all of this? Are they musical at all? Are they around for a lot of the creating?
Ben: Yeah. They’re usually just completely in the mix. Sometimes they love that and sometimes they just want our undivided attention. They love the excitement and they love the music and they love the people that we are associated with because of our music, but it’s a balance of including them and also being productive. It can be a hard balance to strike. I think the older they get, the more they can be included in playing and contributing to writing and being more and more in the process. We try to include them appropriate to their age, but all along we really try to give them a wide scope, exposing them to the music that we love, and just constantly giving their ears things to grab onto. All of the music we listen to is from people we know, through our relationships, so they can always put a face to the music. I love that. When we were watching the Daneilson movie with them, our son was like, “I didn’t know that Daniel is so famous! He’s on Netflix!” It wasn’t because he was in a movie—it was because he was on Neflix. And then he was just pointing out everyone that he knows in the movie, and it was just neat because I just want him to connect music to relationships. The importance of music is the art, yes, but it’s also the relationships that flow out of that. So they’re both very musical. Great singers and our son will probably play the drums, and our daughter completely blows us away at the piano. She is the songwriter. She sings these songs that you don’t know where they’re coming from. They’re awesome and psychedelic and strange. I try to periodically record the kids, to bring them over to the little home studio and record them. I try to communicate with them about my creative process. If I’m struggling with lyrics or songs, I’ll include them in the conversation, so they see beginning to end what is involved in writing a song. They really get into that.
Vesper: We say this all the time, that when friends without kids will ask, “Oh, how do you do it with kids?” we’re always like, “Our creative juices really started flowing when we had kids. That things really started taking off after that.” It depends on how you go about it, and it can be a self-fulfilling thing, this idea that your life has to stop once you have kids, but for us it’s been the opposite experience.
Ben: For us it’s like, “Oh, we better start really living. We have to start really striving for life’s richness so that we can provide that environment for our kids.” So she’s right—it’s only when we had kids that we started getting serious about it, whether it’s our visual art or music or film or whatever. They’ve been catalysts for us. It’s really a blessing. And watching their creativity is so inspiring and so humbling, because they are the freedom that we want. They have the freedom that we’re striving for and always falling short of. It’s like this thing that’s right in front of us: here is the goal.

Paste: When did you two start making music together?
Vesper: Late 2005.
Ben: Well, in a collaborative way. Before that, Vesper had her own sort of track that she was on, and I was certainly a part of that in accompanying her and helping her record. I’d do what I could.
Vesper: We tried to write a song together once. It was okay.
Ben: We hadn’t really found out how we worked together. We worked well together but it was definitely more Vesper’s vision. This project [Ben + Vesper] came about on the eve of having our second child. Well, you can tell this story—you’re good at talking about this.
Vesper: I was just about to have our daughter, and I think I was probably pretty overwhelmed. I was frustrated with not being able to work, because my illustration work means a lot to me, and because I never wanted to be a stay at home mom. So getting ready to have another baby, I was like, “Oh my gosh, what is this going to mean?” Ben had started writing these songs, and he felt this urgency to do something creative before she was born, like this one push. The week before our son was born, he just went out into the woods and painted in the snow and came back with all of these amazing paintings. So with our daughter, it was songwriting. His intention, also, was to carve out a place for me to be creative without having to work at it. So he wrote these songs and all he wanted me to do on the demos was sing wit him in unison. That’s it. So the demos are the songs from All This Could Kill You sung in unison with one guitar. We thought that’s where the project was going to go, this eerie kind of thing, but Ben felt so strongly about the songs that he said, “I’m submitting this to Daniel and I want to get on the label.” I mean he wasn’t ambitious about it in the sense that he was going to beat down Daniel’s door, but he was just like, “I really believe in this and I think it could go somewhere.” A week later our daughter was born, and Daniel called up and was like, “Let’s do it!” She was three months old when we did the record.

Paste: What kind of growth has happened since then? In 2005 you were coming from two different places, and now you’ve been working together musically for five years. What have the past five years been? You talked before about weeding out what is not authentically yours and realizing what is. Are there other ways in which you feel like Ben + Vesper is growing?
Ben: Musically?
Paste: Well, I’m sure that there are some things in your marriage and personal lives that pour into this, too.
Vesper: It’s been the best. It’s been awesome.
Ben: Yeah. In terms of the music, I think it’s just been about finding a pattern that enables us to capitalize on our strengths and doing it in a way where our creative voices can come through in partnership. I do all of the initial writing for all of the songs, but Vesper is hugely important. She comes up with everything that she sings and much more, so it’s a real collaboration for us in that way. At first she was very uneasy about her role, because she did feel like it was so male-dominated, and because I was doing all of the writing—
Vesper: —and he was singing all the leads—
Ben: —and she felt like, “Geez, where do I fit in? How do I make this work and still be myself, expressing creatively and authentically?” So it’s taken a while to hit upon that, but in the last two albums we feel like it’s working. Our musical relationship has gotten to the point where we both feel equally comfortable with it and like it’s equally us, not just me pulling her along. Gradually, she’s singing more and more and taking on more responsibilities than singing, with instrumentation and creative decisions, and I’ve become more trusting and comfortable through doing that.
Vesper: Did that take you a while?
Ben: Yeah, because at first I was very protective over this project because I really did want to carve out a space for Vesper where she doesn’t have to carry the burden of the writing or responsibility and she could just have fun. I was scared for that to change. It took me a while to trust that you weren’t going to take on too much and become weighed down. I didn’t want to create a monster—a project that was going to wind up being more worry or more stress in her life. That wasn’t the original intention, but now it’s clear that you draw life from it and it’s stimulating to you, and as I’ve seen that happen, we share more in it.
Vesper: It was good for me to have to struggle with it. I learned, I think even in my personal life, that it’s OK to be who I am and bring to the table what I have, in many more ways than just the music. I’m created the way I’m created for a reason. We were just listening to All This Could Kill You, and I love that record—it’s so fun to listen to, it’s really enjoyable—but I noticed that my vocals were not as confident as they are now. I felt like I had to fit into Ben’s—
Ben: —version of you, or something?
Vesper: Yeah. Not that I was scared to be myself around Ben, but it was like, “Oh, well now we’re on a label, and there’s more riding on it and I have to conform to this idea. In one sense, when Sufjan had me sing Opera, it was a stretch. But at the same time, I love Opera. I come from a background where that’s a really important influence and I know how to sing that way, so I could do it. It never would have dawned on me to even try that four years ago.
Ben: I think it’s just about gaining freedom, and for us, not taking ourselves so seriously. Just because a reviewer takes you too seriously doesn’t mean you have to take yourself seriously. We take music really seriously but taking ourselves seriously is a mistake. That’s when you get self-conscious and you start making bad musical decisions. That’s the journey it’s been—a journey to freedom. And in honing down on what our music is about, it is really about the relationships that we’re surrounded by.
Vesper: I’m glad you brought that up. A couple of time when people have written about the music, it trips them up that we’re playing with Sufjan or Daniel, and they’re like, “Oh, this just sounds like they’re trying to sound like them,” or whatever, and that’s a little offensive. Because our music is so about relationship, of course we want them to be themselves on the recording! We’re not trying to make them play in some kind of Ben + Vesper way. We want them to be themselves. On every recording we’ve ever done, the collaboration is very important to us. We don’t write ahead of time, arrangement-wise. We just let everybody bring what they have to the table. We send them demos of just the voice and guitar.
Ben: The point is for them to bring to the table what their strengths are and what they hear. If that was not the case, it would be so boring. It would be such a drag to dictate, “This is what you play; this is how I want it,” because that’s not how I write. I write thinking, “I wonder how Josh is going to interpret this. I wonder what in the world my friend who I’m going to ask is going to do with this.” On every recording, the people that we’ve chosen to contribute have been really important to the project, and that’s the point. We got a blog review on LuvInIdleness and it was a little offensive because the writer was accusing us of making a record with Sufjan Stevens that sounds like a record made with Sufjan Stevens. Somehow that was a negative thing—that we would allow it to sound like too much like him. It was really confusing. It was like, “Well, that’s why we played with Sufjan—because we like what he does.” So it’s just weird stuff like that that we don’t really understand, because it is for us about relationships. That’s the joy of it. That’s the point.

Paste: Speaking of relationships, are you so excited for this tour?
Ben: Yes. I don’t even know how to talk about it. The prospect of not only touring with Danielson, but playing in the band—because we’re both going to be playing in Danielson—and the idea that we can wear those shoes is just the biggest honor. I am a shameless Danielson fan and have been ever since I first heard him. So I just have all of the gushy feelings, all of the high school gushy feelings about it, and that’s just how it is. We’re super excited for the chance to hang out with Ortolan, too. We love what they do and they’re so much fun.